Tokyo Neighborhood Strolls: The Elegant Aoyama
Architecture, Luxury Shopping and Al Fresco Dining
April 25, 2017
Lifestyle, Out & About
“A place that inspires and entices.”
There are three things that come to my mind when I think of Aoyama: architecture, luxury shopping and al fresco dining. Aoyama, less swarmed by tourists compared to the neighboring Omotesando and Harajuku, offers no shortage of things to do and places to dine at in a more relaxed and exclusive environment. It’s a place that inspires and entices. Lovers of high-end retail therapy will find plenty of opportunities to empty their wallets, and then further up their spirit in one of the local restaurants.
Don’t worry, there is plenty of sightseeing to do along the way, too.
Aoyama: History and Background
Aoyama is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Tokyo, located in the northwest part of Minato ward. The area was named after Aoyama Tadanari, a samurai who served as a chief vassal to the Tokugawa shogunate in the 16th century and was given a vast estate extending from Akasaka to Shibuya — or, as you can guess, the land covering the current territory of Aoyama district. Nowadays, the mansion of the Aoyama clan has been replaced by chic fashion houses, galleries and museums, restaurants, universities and manicured plazas — in short, plenty to keep you busy the entire day.
Things To Do And See In Aoyama
Start your weekend morning at the plaza of The United Nations University just outside Omotesando station, to enjoy one of Tokyo’s most popular farmers’ markets. Over 40 stallholders sell organic and local fare there, most of which is grown by farmers based in the Kanto plain area. More than just an open market, the place has such a wonderful, friendly vibe that it’s worth stopping by even if you don’t intend to buy anything. The farmer’s market also periodically hosts a variety of events like the Coffee Festival and such like.
Another academic institution, the Aoyama Gakuin University, is also worth checking out. One of Japan’s premier private universities founded by Christian missionaries in 1949, it boasts expansive campus grounds with beautiful greenery and classically elegant architecture. Home to a number of buildings registered on Japan’s National Register of Tangible Cultural Properties, the university is an open-air architectural museum and an ultimate pleasure for the eyes in spring when the sakura and azaleas bloom, and in autumn when the red foliage covers the campus.
Another hidden oasis in the area is the Nezu Museum close to Omotesando station. Located on the site of the former residence of Kaichiro Nezu, the founder of Tobu Tetsudo (Tobu Railways), the museum is home of a diverse collection of Japanese and Asian pre-modern art, among which seven works were designated as National Treasures, 87 Important Cultural Properties, and 94 Important Art Objects. Perhaps the most irresistible feature of the museum is its lush Japanese garden that balances the urban surrounds of the neighborhood. Take shelter at the tea house overlooking the pond for a cup of matcha tea with a dash of zen.
Aoyama is also dotted with little shrines and temples, as well as Japan’s first municipal cemetery, the Aoyama Cemetery, which is known to be particularly scenic and atmospheric during the cherry blossom season.
The streets of Aoyama are a sightseeing destination in themselves: luxury brands here put as much emphasis on the innovative design of their buildings as they do on the design of their products, and the architecture is as up-to-the-minute and interesting as the latest collections housed within. Whether it is Herzog & de Meuron’s futuristic Prada Aoyama shop, the basket-weave aluminum façade of Stella McCartney flagship store or the Miu Miu boutique that resembles a half open box, there’s much ado about unique shapes and visual texture in the Aoyama district.
Where To Shop
While Ginza gets all the limelight for luxury shopping, Aoyama is an equally competitive playground for cutting-edge fashion outlets and pricey boutiques. Those with cash to splash can sate their appetite for luxurious commerce in the likes of Maison Kitsune, Louboutin, Miu Miu, Stella McCartney and Dior, who all entice with the attention-grabbing displays of the latest trends. Besides the Western designers, you will also find local fashion influencers like Issey Miyake, Hanae Mori, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons and Jun Takahashi’s Undercover to name a few.
Take a spin through the concept store Super A Market, which sells everything from Valentino frocks to homemade buttons. You can even have a drink at the hip bar and grill upstairs.
The gleaming brass door at Koichiro Kimura takes you into another world. The avant-garde design homeware and furniture shop features faceted walls and ceilings that challenge your perception of the space.
Hakusan-Shop, just across from the Nezu Museum, offers traditionally made Japanese ceramics—rice bowls, dinner sets, a beloved soy sauce dispenser—with a modern twist.
Pick up a bundle of incense from the rainbow of colors offered at Lisn Aoyama, a plaster-and-glass shop from Kyoto with a minimalist interior.
Lastly, stop by Encounter Madu for sophisticated and more wallet-friendly options of home décor items. I managed to pick up several colorful kitchen towels to brighten up my cooking space.
Where To Eat
Whether you’re looking for breakfast, lunch or dinner, Aoyama will spoil you for choice of appetizing cafes and restaurants offering local and international fare.
Breakfast and Coffee
Stop at Aoyama Flower Market Tea House for their delicious fruity French toasts and herbal teas, fragrant rose tea being my all-time favorite. Andersen Bakery offers a wide selection of healthy (and colorful) sandwiches, although I can never pass buy their curry donuts. Du Pain and Des Idees, the outpost of the famous French patisserie, channels the vibes of the quintessential French bakery and their pistachio and chocolate escargot is definitely a must-try.
You won’t have to look far for a delicious cup of coffee either. A cozy artisanal coffee shop Shozo with a handful of seats serves hand drip coffee from Tochigi Prefecture. Right next to it, the Oakland-born Blue Bottle Coffee boasts a much larger space and a large selection of java brewed with beans that are served within 48 hours after roasting, to ensure that perfect crispness of taste. Part of the attraction of the café is watching the coffee baristas at work, which resembles a chemist’s laboratory on the counter. I equally fancy Parisian import Coutume Aoyama for its light roasts and sleekly fashionable interior complimented with spacious outdoor seats – something of a luxury in Tokyo. They offer both drip-style and espresso-based coffees paired with excellent sandwiches and galettes. Perhaps my favorite of them all is Café Kitsune, where interior details such as custom-made tatami, Japanese monograms strewn throughout the walls and fusuma sliding doors are a nod to the traditions of Japan. Most importantly, coffee here will surprise you with strong flavors and smooth finish.
Quick Bites and Restaurants
For a relaxed and easy grab, head straight to Commune 426 – a cool outdoor space set up in the style of a beer garden. I went for a paella dish from the cozy Lulu Tapas Bar, although there are plenty of other options, too.
For a bit swankier al fresco dining, Cicada is a perfect option with a range of delicious Mediterranean fare on the menu (think Moroccan, Portuguese and Italian cuisine), with highlights such as tapas and mezze platter; spicy grilled Moroccan shrimp with veggie couscous, tahini sauce and pomegranate seeds; or lamb tagine with apricots, honey and ginger, served with cous cous on side. If you crave Italian, I highly recommend Riva degli Etruschi which looks like nothing but an Italian villa from Tuscany with a gorgeous floral terrace on the second floor.
Green tea aficionados should not miss a visit to Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience for a memorable tea tasting experience, which is more like a meditative journey. Stop by Higashiya to pick up a few of their exquisite artisanal wagashi (Japanese sweets) which change with seasons and are made of the best local ingredients. Pie lovers will find themselves in heaven at Quil Fait Bon which offers a mind-boggling variety of fruit-covered delicacies. Lastly, who could pass a chance at a macaroon or two at Pierre Herme’s glamorous café overlooking Aoyama Dori street. Order ispahan – a delightful mélange of lychee, rose and raspberry — and watch the world go by as you savor every bite of this pastry from one of the best patissiers in the world.
Heading to Aoyama anytime soon? Tag your best photos with #savvyneighborhoodstrolls and share them with us!
The Aoyama area is easily accessible from Omotesando, Gaienmae and Aoyama-itchome stations. For access to each venue, check information on their respective websites.